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33 of 41 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Out of Oblivion?, 14 Dec. 2011
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This review is from: Athelstan: The First King of England (English Monarchs Series) (The Yale English Monarchs Series) (Hardcover)
If one ignores the claims of Bretwaldas (Ethelbert of Kent, Edwin of Northumbria, Offa of Mercia and Egbert of Wessex) who should be styled `King of England'. In pre-Conquest England there are, perhaps, four claimants. However, Alfred (871-99) may have `saved England' but he certainly had no claim over much more than the southern shires. His son, Edward the Elder (899-924) extended his control northwards but, whatever panegyrists might have produced, never had control over Northumbria which remained firmly in the grip of the Danes. In her first-rate biography of 'thelstan (924-39) Sarah Foote puts forward the claim of her subject with strong support.

'thelstan was the eldest child of Edward the Elder's first marriage but appears to have been pushed down the pecking order by the progeny of that king's two subsequent marriages. Indeed, Sarah Foote asserts that 'thelstan spent his early years with his aunt, 'thlflaeda, and her husband who were in charge of those parts of Mercia controlled Edward the Elder. Luck removed 'thelstan's most serious rival by the death of his eldest half-brother, 'lfweard, within weeks of their father. 'thelstan managed to shrug off whatever coups (threatened or actual) were made against him over the next fifteen years. He was to be succeeded by a half-brother, Edmund, the eldest of the third marriage.

After an overview of the reign, Sarah Foote looks more closely at his family. Clearly actual sources are in short supply and much of her effort is concerned with examining the products of post-Conquest annalists (especially William of Malmesbury) in the light of evidence from sources, such as charters and archaeology, more in vogue with post-Victorian historians. Unlike his father, 'thelstan didn't marry off female relatives to Englishmen but used them to forge useful links with foreign rulers. His practice of fostering sons of foreign rulers served much the same purpose. Significantly, Sarah Foote attaches a discussion of the `household' within the chapter on Family, exploiting whatever remains among the sources to explore its composition.

A chapter on the Court follows, demonstrating its itinerant nature, although 'thelstan rarely stirred beyond the boundaries of West Sussex, making the magnates come to him. At the kernel of the system was what the author argues was a royal writing office, exerting control through a proliferation of charters etc.- although the reader is warned of later forgeries distorting the genuine activities of 'thelstan. The author notes the activity of `'thelstan A' as a key participant in this expansion of legal activity. The lofty tone so often adopted in governmental documentation may be part of this trend, but how much of that merely stems from Carolingian models?.

Sarah Foote argues the coronation ceremonial typical of the pre-Conquest court originated during this period, with 'thelstan adopting emblems (e.g. a crown) beyond the warlike symbols of his predecessors. Again this is following continental developments which, in turn, aped Byzantine and Roman practices.
The King's international contacts are stressed, marking him out during a chaotic 10th century. Later the structure of the King's council, later to develop into the Witan, with similar bodies at a lower level are examined. Sarah Foote stresses the blending of both personnel (Saxon, Mercian and even Danish) and function, with their discussions involving both lay and clerical matters. 'thelstan's government is linked with the emerging tithing system and that other typical medieval institution, trial by ordeal, makes its first appearance `in terms which demonstrate clearly the extent to which this was a liturgical as well as a judicial ceremony' (P.147). Religion likewise guided 'thelstan's urge to protect his people, although sanctions against thieves etc. had to be toned down as they were undermined by realism' 'thelstan's coinage, copying Roman models, was perhaps the finest in western Europe, based on the affluence of a realm well-ordered despite its diversity.

Sarah Foote considers the Church, indicating how much 'thelstan recruited bishops from within his own household - a practice increasingly common throughout the Middle Ages. She eschews a study of contemporary religious practices, soon to fall under the influence of Cluny, because this is a BIOGRAPHY and not a history of England. The King proved a generous benefactor to the Church - books, equipment and land - as a devotional son. Indeed, the author does point out how 'thelstan's international contacts assisted such later reforms - and also the attendance at court of two of its later exponents, Dunstan (perhaps) and 'thelwold. Associated with such trends were other aspects of Court life such as the poets cultivated by the King and Sarah Foote teasingly suggests `Beowulf'' may have been produced there - surely stretching the picture too far. As a by-product of this naturally the fascination in relics by 'thelstan and his peers is closely examined; also his devotion and interest in English saints such as the 7th century Oswald and Cuthbert (both northerners!).

Because this is a BIOGRAPHY there is little reference to military equipment, tactics or organisation when dealing with warfare, although repeatedly 'thelstan's reputation as a successful military leader is mentioned. The two major campaigns in Scotland (934) and at Brunanburh (937) are well covered, considering the poverty of sources - which even means that Brunanburh, one of the major battles in British history has no agreed location, Sarah Foote places it in Cheshire after a careful analysis. Perhaps it has been his military reputation which has largely kept alive the memory of this `lord of nobles, dispenser of treasure to men'.

So what are the weaknesses of the work. They derive from the nature of the subject, still largely shrouded in obscurity. It may be interesting to find details about 'thelstan's whereabouts (see Appendix 2 ofr a complete list), for example: `......the king had brought the court back to the south by early in the autumn; on 13 September 934 at his vill at Buckingham he granted land in Wiltshire to one of his thegns.'(p.167) But what else was going on? We can never know so a fluid narrative, present in royal biographies such as those of Edward II or Henry VIII, is missing. The use of Old English orthography (e.g. the `thorn' for `th') or spelling of proper names (e.g. 'lfthryth or 'thelred) although academically correct does help comprehension. It remains a biography for the student rather than the general reader but easily deserves 4 stars..
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